Friday, January 26, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Salvatore Fiume, Jesus Casts Out Demons
The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, according to all you desired of the Lord your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.” And the Lord said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die. (De 18:15–20)

It is written in Deuteronomy, “Your God will raise up a prophet like me for you from your brothers. You shall hear him; and it shall be that every soul which will not hear that prophet shall be destroyed from his people.” Therefore some prophet was specially expected who would be similar to Moses in some respect, to mediate between God and humanity, and who would receive the covenant from God and give the new covenant to those who became disciples. And the people of Israel knew so far as each of the prophets was concerned that no one of them was the One announced by Moses.

Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John 6.8

Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. Then they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee. (Mark 1:21–28)

Yes, even the demons exclaimed, on beholding the Son: “We know who You are, the Holy One of God.” And the devil looking at Him, and tempting Him, said: “If You are the Son of God;”—all thus indeed seeing and speaking of the Son and the Father, but all not believing. For it was fitting that the truth should receive testimony from all, and should become judgment for the salvation indeed of those who believe, but for the condemnation of those who believe not; that all should be fairly judged, and that the faith in the Father and Son should be approved by all, that is, that it should be established by all, receiving testimony from all, both from those belonging to it, since they are its friends, and by those having no connection with it, though they are its enemies. For that evidence is true, and cannot be gainsaid, which elicits even from its adversaries striking testimonies in its behalf; they being convinced with respect to the matter in hand by their own plain contemplation of it, and bearing testimony to it, as well as declaring it.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.6.6–7

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Soil Cultivation

“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it. Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away. And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.” And He said to them, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Mark 4:3-9)

I enjoy good teaching that leaves me thinking more on the material just reviewed. This past Sunday, our pastor taught on the Parable of Sower/Soils (depending on which title you prefer) from Mark 4:1-20, making the following useful analogy between the soils and men's hearts:
  • Hard soil = hard heart
  • Rocky soil = shallow heart
  • Thorny soil = cluttered heart
  • Good soil = open heart
He then followed up with a series of questions, but the first got my attention: How’s your heart? This got me to thinking: following the theme of the parable, can the soil be made more useful, and whose job is it to improve it?

Logically, it is not as though soil would ever receive only one planting. Farmers, as long as they are working a field, do what they can to improve their soil to gain a better harvest. We recognize, therefore, that since God is the Sower, He is the cultivator of the soil as Clement of Alexandria notes:
Finally there is only one cultivator of the soil of the human soul. It is the One who from the beginning, from the foundations of the world, has been sowing living seeds by which all things grow. In each age the Word has come down upon all like rain. But the times and places which received these gifts account for the differences which exist. (Stromateis 1.7)
It is He who alone has the ability to improve the soil. As the land is worked, there would be opportunity to remove thorns and rocks, and break up ground that had formerly been tamped down through constant wear. Over and again He sows the Word in order that previously poor ground might provide a yield, even as John Chrysostom writes:
For it is the way of the Lord never to stop sowing the seed, even when He knows beforehand that some of it will not respond. But how can it be reasonable, one asks, to sow among the thorns, or on the rock, or alongside the road? Maybe it is not reasonable insofar as it pertains only to seeds and earth, for the bare rock is not likely to turn into tillable soil, and the roadside will remain roadside and the thorns, thorns. But in the case of free wills and their reasonable instruction, this kind of sowing is praiseworthy. For the rocky soul can in time turn into rich soil. Among souls, the wayside may come no longer to be trampled by all that pass, and may become a fertile field. The thorns may be destroyed and the seed enjoy full growth. For had this not been impossible, this Sower would not have sown. And even if no change whatever occurs in the soul, this is no fault of the Sower, but of those who are unwilling to be changed. He has done his part. (Homilies on Matthew 44.5.1)
All this work does not happen immediately. The Holy Spirit is a chief worker in our souls as He broods or hovers over us in preparation of life. He cultivates us so that the seed, the Word of God, which is quick and powerful may cause growth. In addition, it is not as we are unwilling recipients. As opposed to inanimate ground, we respond to the working of the Word and Holy Spirit. True, it may be that the hard, rocky, or thorny heart might be more so in turning away from Sower, however, Augustine had better considerations as he exhorted:
Work diligently the soil while you may. Break up your fallow with the plow. Cast away the stones from your field, and dig out the thorns. Be unwilling to have a “hard heart,” such as makes the Word of God of no effect. Be unwilling to have a “thin layer of soil,” in which the root of divine love can find no depth in which to enter. Be unwilling to “choke the good seed” by the cares and the lusts of this life, when it is being scattered for your good. When God is the sower and we are the ground, we are called to work to be good ground. (Sermons on New Testament Lessons 73.3)
A final question the pastor had was, “How’s your heart?” Or to amend it for my purposes, “Have you taken a soil sample recently?” Let us not be like those who fall away, but instead let us receive the seed for our benefit both now and at the Last Day.
For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned. (Heb 6:7–8)

Friday, January 19, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Third Sunday after Epiphany

And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him. When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him. (Mark 1:16–20)

Reflect on the nature and grandeur of the one Almighty God who could associate Himself with the poor of the lowly fisherman’s class. To use them to carry out God’s mission baffles all rationality. For having conceived the intention, which no one ever before had done, of spreading His own commands and teachings to all nations, and of revealing Himself as the teacher of the religion of the one Almighty God to all humanity, He thought good to use the most rustic and common people as ministers of his own design, because maybe God just wanted to work in the most unlikely way. For how could inarticulate folk be made able to teach, even if they were appointed teachers to only one person, much less to a multitude? How should those who were themselves without education instruct the nations?

But this was surely the manifestation of the divine will and of the divine power working in them. For when He called them, the first thing He said to them was "Come, follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." And when He had thus acquired them as followers, He breathed into them His divine power, He filled them with strength and bravery, and like a true Word of God and as God Himself, the doer of such great wonders, He made them hunters of rational souls, adding power to His words: “Come, follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” With this empowerment God sent them forth to be workers and teachers of holiness to all the nations, declaring them heralds of His own teaching.

Eusebius, Proof of the Gospel 3.7

Friday, January 12, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Second Sunday after Epiphany

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!” Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:47–49)

He praises and approves the man because he had said, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” And yet, shouldn’t have Jesus rather found fault in him? Surely not; for the words are not those of an unbeliever or one deserving blame, but praise. How can you say that? Because Nathanael had considered the writings of the prophets more than Philip. For he had heard from the Scriptures that Christ must come from Bethlehem, and from the village in which David was. This belief at least prevailed among the Jews, and the prophet had proclaimed it of old.… And so when he heard that Jesus was “from Nazareth,” he was confounded and doubted, not finding the announcement of Philip to agree with the prediction of the prophet.

John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John

[Nathanael] knows that God alone searches the heart and gives to no other man the ability to know the mind. He is probably thinking of the passage in the Psalms, “O God, who tests the hearts and inward parts” [Ps 7:9; see also Ps 139:1–3]. The psalmist assigns this special quality too to the divine nature alone, taking the position that it does not belong to anyone else. Therefore, when he realizes that the Lord saw his suspicion while it was still turning around in his mind in voiceless whispers, he immediately calls Him “teacher.” Already entering eagerly into discipleship under Him, he confesses Him to be Son of God and king of Israel who has the properties of divinity. As one who is well-instructed, he maintains that this One is certainly God by nature.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Cutting a Musical Covenant

Illustration of Asa destroying the idols, in the Bible Historiale, 1372.
 Then they took an oath before the Lord with a loud voice, with shouting and trumpets and rams’ horns. And all Judah rejoiced at the oath, for they had sworn with all their heart and sought Him with all their soul; and He was found by them, and the Lord gave them rest all around. (2 Chr 15:14–15)

Over the weekend, I read a piece by Peter Leithart entitled “Musical Oath.” The setting is Asa’s reforms in Judah after receiving a word from the Lord through the prophet Azariah, the son of Oded. Asa showed himself to be a good king—cleaning up the idolatry (removing altars, high places, altars, and images), rebuilding cities, and relying on the Lord to defeat the Ethiopians (2 Chronicles 14). The prophet came to Asa with the promise of God’s peace and favor if the king continued to follow faithfully. This he did by further cleaning up idolatry, restoring the altar to its rightful place, and calling the people before the Lord in Jerusalem.

With the background set, we turn to the gist of Leithart’s article. As a result of all the Lord had strengthened the people to do, they returned sacrifices and an oath as part of the worship. It is here that a connection is made concerning the oath and how it was offered. Per Leithart:
Verse 14 says that they made the oath “with a loud voice, with shouting, with trumpets, and with horns.” Music expresses and enhances the joy of the occasion (v. 15), Judah’s joy in their own oath-taking and God-seeking, their joy in the fact that God allows Himself to be found.

But verse 14 indicates a more intimate link between music and the covenant oath. They swear to Yahweh with a fourfold sound – voice, shouting, trumpets, horns. It’s a musical covenant-making.
Let that sink in a minute. What the people of Judah offered in response to all the Lord’s goodness and provision was not a lighthearted musical ditty; neither was it a raucous, triumphalist fight song. What they offered up was an oath, a solemn declaration, “to seek the Lord God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul.” This was an intentional and determined desire by the people to follow the Lord according to His laws and commands with the result that “He was found by them, and the Lord gave them rest all around.” What is our goal for Sunday singing? Do we desire to simply set a proper atmosphere for the experience, or are we intent on holding fast to His revelation and expectation?

One cannot help but wonder whether or not we understand the serious nature of our Sunday morning music. To that end, I leave you with Peter Leithart’s closing remarks:
Think of that next time you open your mouth to sing at church. You’re not just expressing your joy in the Lord, though you are doing that. The music doesn’t exist only to enhance or elicit joy, though it does that.

Your singing is an oath-by-sacrifice, a commitment of body and soul to seek the Lord with everything you’ve got.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Jesus' Baptism

It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Ro 6:9-11)

And stretching forth slowly his right hand, which seemed both to tremble and to rejoice, John baptized the Lord. Then his detractors who were present, with those in the vicinity and those from a distance, connived together, and spoke among themselves asking: “Was John then superior to Jesus? Was it without cause that we thought John greater, and does not his very baptism attest this? Is not he who baptizes presented as the greater, and he who is baptized as the less important?” But just as they, in their ignorance of the mystery of the divine economy, babbled about with each other, the Holy One who alone is Lord spoke. He who by nature is the Father of the only begotten (who alone was begotten in unblemished fashion) instantly rectified their blunted imaginations. He opened the gates of the heavens and sent down the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, lighting upon the head of Jesus, pointing him out right there as the new Noah, even the maker of Noah, and the good pilot of the nature which is in shipwreck. And he himself calls with clear voice out of heaven, and says: “This is my beloved Son,”—Jesus, not John: the One baptized, and not the one baptizing; the One who was begotten of me before all time, and not the one who was begotten of Zechariah; the One who was born of Mary after the flesh, and not the one who was brought forth by Elizabeth beyond all expectation; the One who was the fruit of the virginity which he yet preserved intact, not the one who was the shoot from a sterility removed; the One who had his encounter with you, and not the one brought up in the wilderness. This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: my Son, of the same substance with myself, and not of a different; of the same essence with me according to what is unseen, and of the same essence with you according to what is seen, yet without sin.

Gregory Thaumaturgus, On the Holy Theophany, or Of Christ’s Baptism